As children return to classrooms for the first time in more than a year, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez is proposing two ideas to help close the structural inequities exacerbating the digital divide.
When schools were required to switch to distance learning, the gap between residents who did and did not have access to internet or digital devices became very clear.
Thousands of children in Santa Clara County from low-income families or those living in rural areas were unable to properly get their schooling, and “many of them are likely to never catch up,” Chavez said in her board referral.
The county allocated $7.1 million in August 2020 to buy laptops and mobile hot-spot devices, which was essential, Chavez said, but were only short-term solutions.
“We still need to address Santa Clara County’s existing structural inequities in internet access,” Chavez wrote.
So, Chavez is advocating for the creation of a digital divide consortium and the implementation of a “Dig Once” policy.
Both these proposals will be voted on by county supervisors at their Tuesday meeting.
“This is an opportunity for us to be proactive, to be assertive, and to be aggressive, in (closing the digital divide),” Chavez said at a Monday news conference.
The consortium Chavez seeks to create would have representatives from local governments, public safety, schools, health care, libraries and other organizations.
The goal would be to put the county in a better position to apply and receive federal and state funding to address internet inequity.
Chavez also noted that creating a consortium eligible for the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) Rural and Urban Regional Broadband Consortia Account, a state consortium grant program that provides funding to promote broadband deployment in underserved or unserved areas, would also help the county receive additional funding.
Currently, Santa Clara County is one of four counties in the state that does not, or has never had such a consortium.
And Chavez said it has resulted in the county missing out on a lot of much needed funding.
Counties with consortiums that applied for funding from CASF received $900,000 in two grants in the 2020 and $3.8 million in nine grants in 2019, according to Chavez’s board referral.
“One of the bills that’s in front of the California legislature right now is $8 billion in resources, and at a federal level, as part of the infrastructure bill, there are billions more (in funding being considered),” Chavez said. “So really, this is an opportunity for us to be prepared to receive millions and millions of dollars.”
The other part of Chavez’s proposal is to enact the “dig once” policy.
Essentially, this policy would allow the county to take advantage of existing infrastructure projects on county expressways, roads and other facilities to install broadband conduits capable of supporting fiber optic communication cables.
“It wouldn’t force anybody to build, it would really just make sure that we’re digging once,” Chavez said.
The “dig once” policy was first enacted in Utah in 1999 and had great results, Chavez said.
The Utah Department of Transportation had an estimated cost saving of 15.5 percent per mile when conduit and fiber were installed concurrently with road constructions, instead of installing them at a later date, according to her board referral.
The policy was later adopted by 11 states and in California cities like San Francisco and Brentwood.
The Contra Costa County city of Brentwood enacted the “dig once” policy in 1999 as well and it has since laid about 150 miles of conduit, connecting more than 8,000 homes, Chavez noted.
If passed by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, it would direct county staff to come back with different ideas on how to make these proposals a reality by June 22, 2021.
Those interested can participate in the meeting via Zoom. The meeting will start at 9:30am and can also be watched from the county’s meeting portal or on YouTube.